Bob Ferguson fell back on a chess analogy, as he so often does.
Washington’s attorney general was behind a podium, the keynote speaker at Pacific Lutheran University’s eighth biennial Wang Center Symposium on migration.
The question came from a woman in the crowd, wondering what might come next in the long and growing list of legal battles Ferguson has waged against the Trump administration.
Predicting the future, Ferguson said, was impossible. Besides, he’s too focused on the day-to-day work in front of him.
Then the internationally rated chess master and two-time state chess champ turned to a familiar foe — not Trump, but Viktors Pūpols.
Pūpols is a local chess legend, known for his unorthodox playing style, Ferguson said. Early in Ferguson’s chess-playing career, Pūpols’s unexpected attacks would regularly catch him off-guard, leaving him vulnerable and regularly defeated.
Eventually, Ferguson said, he learned that playing Pūpols effectively meant anticipating the unexpected. Often, he told the crowd, Pūpols’ moves “were not the best moves” — but they were surprising.
“There’s a weakness to it, if you can figure it out in the time you have,” the attorney general observed. “It’s kind of how I think about the Trump administration.”
To be certain, Viktors Pūpols is no Donald Trump. One is a well-respected thinker whose strategy and gamesmanship forces opponents out of their comfort zone. The other seems better suited to checkers and often appears in over his head.
Still, there’s a lesson here. To go toe-to-toe with Pūpols, Ferguson had to adapt and abandon the rigid thinking and conventional wisdom that had helped him become a formidable chess player in the first place.
Evidence of another evolution in his time as the state’s attorney general certainly can be seen in the way Ferguson has reacted to the Trump administration. He’s launched 21 lawsuits (and counting), and has a 5-0 record against the administration in court.
Fifteen months into Trump’s presidency, one gets the feeling Ferguson is just getting started.
Do I think immigrants add a tremendous value to our community? Yes, emphatically so. I’m not sure the current president agrees with that, to put it mildly.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson
In the green room after his PLU address, Ferguson talked about the possibility of another unorthodox move that could be in the making. He said it appears the Trump administration is going “on the offensive” against states that push back against it. Washington, he said, might one day find itself in the crosshairs.
It’s a valid concern. Not only is Ferguson building a national reputation as a prominent legal foil to Trump’s erratic and impulsive directives, but a few days before Ferguson spoke at PLU, Jeff Sessions, the attorney general of the United States, announced that the Trump administration was suing California over the state’s immigration policies.
Gov. Jerry Brown and California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra — prominent Trump critics, much like our own Jay Inslee and Ferguson — both specifically drew Sessions’ ire.
Might Washington, and Ferguson, be the next to face reprisal from D.C.? While Washington’s immigration laws are distinctly different than California’s, retaliation on other fronts — like, say, marijuana or the state’s new net neutrality law — certainly seems conceivable.
“I worry about that every day,” Ferguson said of the possibility.
Specifically, Ferguson cited the state’s recreational marijuana laws as ones that might trigger retribution from the Sessions-led Department of Justice.
“Attorney General Sessions’ views on marijuana are well known. And so that is a conversation we have on a regular basis in our office,” Ferguson said. “What are we doing to be ready? What is the administration saying? What is Sessions saying? Trying to read the tea leaves sometimes.
“On the marijuana issue, 110 percent, yes, I worry about that.”
Beyond pot, there are plenty of other reasons why the Trump administration might be growing tired of Washington, and Ferguson’s a big part of why.
It was his lawsuit challenging President Trump’s executive order barring travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations that led to a court order blocking it. Ferguson also was at the forefront of a multistate lawsuit challenging Trump’s attempt to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA.
While Ferguson doesn’t view the lawsuit he filed against Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center as one targeting the Trump administration, it clearly fits with the broader trend of bucking Trump’s hardline stance on immigration and the mechanisms that help carry it out.
Speaking of that stance, and the various immigration-related debates playing out across the country, Ferguson said his baseline is simple.
“Do I think immigrants add a tremendous value to our community? Yes, emphatically so,” Ferguson said. “I’m not sure the current president agrees with that, to put it mildly.”
Which brings us back to the NWDC. In September, Ferguson accused the for-profit operation of violating the state’s minimum-wage laws by paying immigrant detainees $1 a day or less to do work at the facility
That specific case is in its early stages. Ferguson says he expects a long legal proceeding. It’s the type of case, he said, “that could take a year, or two, or three.”
In his typical fashion, Ferguson stuck to the script in discussing his motivations for bringing the lawsuit, though he did acknowledge that he asked his office to specifically “look into” the NWDC and that such a directive was “a little bit unusual.”
“I don’t view it as making some broader statement. It’s about following the law and paying these people what they should be paid,” he said.
“Look, does it make me angry that an out-of-state, for-profit corporation is running this for-profit detention facility and using these individuals for their bottom line, in a way that violates our law? Yeah, that makes me angry. You bet,” the attorney general continued.
“But being angry is not enough. There needs to be a violation of the law, and so that’s what we focus on.”
So far, for Ferguson, it’s been a winning strategy.